Say hello to a slightly leas tidy bookshelf. The clue to this one is in the title. It’s a bit of a bits and bobs shelf. Along the front from left to right you can see some classic Girls Own with Angela Brazil, Elsie Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie Bruce. Then a couple of odd hardbacks – a Noel Streatfeild and a duplicate Sadlers Wells, followed by the Arthur Ransome selection. Then it’s a group of books I’ve had since I was a kid. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the omnibus Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader are TV tie in editions that I got given for Christmas when I was about 8. The other Narnias are from the same era and so are the pile of books on top. The Beat series were one of the first crime books I read, I remember crying buckets when Paul the Chief Inspector and love interest was killed off – it was probably one of the first books with a main character death I read. Behind all these, which you can’t see are my original paperback Sadler’s Wells and all my original chalet School paper backs. I keep telling myself that I’ll have a rationalise and get rid of them, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring myself to. Also in the back is my set of early 90s Drina reprints which I know I’ll never be able to part with as they’re all tied into childhood holidays – as well as the fact I don’t have a hardback set of Drina *and* I’m fairly sure there isn’t a matching set of hardbacks that includes Drina, Ballerina…
Writing this and staring at the photo (and the shelf) has made me realise that I probably need to have a bit of a tidy up and organise – if book conference goes ahead this summer, perhaps a bit of weeding out will help me with some motivation?!
Another in my occasional series of posts about things that have been getting me through the Coronavirus, and this is one that dovetails with my love of middle grade books, despite the fact that I’m no longer a middle grader – and in fact am easily old enough to have a middle grader of my own!
If you’re my sort of age, The Baby-sitters Club was up there with Sweet Valley High as a series that you binge-read from the library. Or at least it was for me. The books – with the building blocks logo and the house with the illustration of the story in the window were instantly recognisable. It’s hard to remember so many years later, but I’m fairly sure I read almost all of the first 50 books, and all the early super specials as well as some of the mysteries. So, I was excited – but also a little trepidatious – to see that Netflix had adapted it. How do you update a series written in the pre-internet, pre mobile phone world so that it works for children today?
As it turns out, they’ve done it really, really well. The personalities of the girls are the same – but Dawn is Hispanic and Mary Anne is biracial. Stacey still has diabetes, but now she has an insulin pump rather than having to do injections. There are mobile phones, but Kristy and Mary Anne still have flashlights to signal between their houses – because Mary Anne’s dad is so overprotective. Would modern parents really trust a bunch of barely teenagers with their kids? Well the series does try and address that. It’s got a strong focus on social justice, which I think is both true to the original books and inline with what the kids today (!) are interested in and it has enough easter eggs in there for the grownups too – like the handwriting on the episode titles being the “right” ones for each girl from the original books, Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mum, Kevin from Brooklyn 99 as Mary Anne’s dad. As grown up, sometimes it was all a little bit ott but I’m not the target audience- and i find that with a lot of children’s shows. It was perfect though for watching while ironing. And low-stakes drama is about all I can deal with right now. At the end of the series Mallory and Jessi were introduced, which means I’m hoping there are plans for a second series – but obviously these strange times we live in could have thrown all that up in the air and mean that the cast age out faster than expected.
Anyway, you can find the Baby-sitters Club on Netflix – and I’m off to read one of the new Babysitter’s Club graphic novels which have been adapted by Raina Telgemeier.
I know exactly when I got my first Drina book – because when my mum gives people books, she always writes a message in them. She gave me Ballet for Drina in June 1991 – when I was seven – to read while she was in hospital for an operation. In the front she wrote that it was one of her favourite books when she was little – and I loved it as well from the moment I first read it and wanted the rest of the books in the series. Several of the others in the series have inscriptions in them marking them as being holiday books from various trips around the south coast. I’ve had the whole set since I was about 14 – but a couple of them didn’t match (smaller size! Different cover style!) and thanks to the wonders of eBay I got the “missing” matching books last year and was finally able to put them in order without the fretting over the fact that they didn’t look right! As you can see they’re all very well-loved – except Drina, Ballerina, one of the new additions, but I can assure you that my old copy is practically falling apart further down the shelf.
The Drina books are responsible for my childhood dream of being a ballerina – a dream which lead eight-year-old me to try to sew my own pointe shoes from an old cotton shirt from the ragbag, some loo roll and some hair ribbons! Drina is also responsible for some notable mispronunciations in my vocabulary – from the say-it-how-you-see-it school of reading – to this day I still struggle to pronounce Igor as Eegor rather than Eye-gor. Particularly because my stepgran had a beautiful Persian Blue called eegor that I used to feed when I went to visit and I always associate names with the first person/animal I knew with that name…
For those of you who haven’t read the series, it’s the story of Andrina Adamo – known as Drina – an orphan who is being brought up by her grandparents and who finds out when she starts ballet lessons in the first book that her mother was actually famous ballerina, who was killed in a plane crash along with her husband on a flight to New York where she was due to dance. Drina is desperate to be a ballet dancer – but wants to succeed on her own without any help (or hindrance) from her famous mother’s name. At the start of the second book the family move to London for her grandfather’s job and Drina starts at ballet school. The rest of the series follows Drina’s trials and tribulations in her quest to succeed – including overcoming her grandmother’s reluctance to let her follow in her mother’s footsteps, twisted ankles, school rivalries, her grandfather’s health problems which lead to her having to spend time away from her training and falling in love (at 14) with a glamourous New Yorker a couple of years older than her called Grant.
It’s hard to pick favourites – but I think mine are Drina Dances Again – where she plays Little Clara in The Nutcracker and Mr Dominick and Madame Volonaise find out Drina’s closely guarded secret about her mother’s identity; Drina Dances in Paris – where Drina goes to dance in The Nutcracker in Paris and Grant (the New Yorker) comes to visit her, Drina Dances on Tour – where her big secret finally comes out, she joins the company, experiences what it’s like to be in the corps de ballet and where Grant arrives in London and comes to find her and Drina, Ballerina which sees the series end with her dancing her mother’s most famous role and marrying Grant.
Looking back at what I’ve written, it sounds like a very far-fetched tale, but then how many children’s stories aren’t! I read them over and over when I was younger, and even as a teenager when I was poorly I’d get out my Drina books and start reading them all over again. Even today, just flicking through them so that I could write this post I’ve come over with the urge to sit down with them and have another read.
Looking at Amazon, I don’t think they’re in print anymore – which is a real shame – because there are still as many ballet mad little girls out there as there always were.
But that does lead me to another thought that has crossed my mind more than once – I am part of the last generation who will read these sort of stories and be able to see my own life in them? For all that Ballet for Drina was written in 1957, it was very similar to my own life – a world with no mobile phones or home computers and where most houses only had one TV – although flying wasn’t the big deal that it was in Drina and liners had stopped being a method of getting to New York by the early 90s. The same applies to a lot of the school stories I used to read (many of which I’m sure I’ll post about in due course) – the only difference between my life and theirs was that their trains ran on coal and that they called maths arithmetic. Will today’s children – who’ve grown up with smart phones, iPads, laptops, the internet and Playstations be able to buy into these stories the same way? I hope so, because I know how much enjoyment and knowledge I got from them when I was little.